|PEP Site Coordinator Esaquiel Astete
and Dr. Gustavo Wensjoe pose with students
Gustavo was born into a middle class family in 1949. His father was an officer in the military and, unlike many of his fellow citizens then and now, was able to afford his children grade school educations.
When Gustavo left his native Peru in 1967 to continue his education in the United States, a part of him may never have left and stayed behind with his family and friends. After graduating from high school in Lima, he studied at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) in Edinburg, Texas, where he obtained a BA in Economics in 1971. Then he moved north to Lubbock to pursue a Master in Economics at Texas Tech University which he earned in 1973 while he was working as a teaching assistant in the Economics department.
From a young age Gustavo had a strong sense of justice and compassion. During his time at Texas Tech he met Danny, a paraplegic student, who lived alone with his pet cat for companionship. Danny experienced discrimination and prejudice, including an incident where his pet cat was shot dead, but Gustavo befriended Danny and inspired him to not give up on life.
Upon obtaining his master from Texas Tech he moved to Houston to work toward a PhD in Political Science at the University of Houston. While attending school he worked whatever jobs he could find to support his studies and his young family, including waiting tables at the now defunct Mexican restaurant El Torito. He excelled at his job thanks to his fluency in English and Spanish and easy way of relating to people.
Even with his heavy responsibilities, he continued to help others. He made sure that every waiter got his fair share of tips and advised recent immigrants on how to improve their service and net larger tips. As hard as his life could be, he maintained a positive outlook and helped others around him. While in Houston he never forgot his friend Danny and besides renewing Danny’s subscriptions to every possible magazine to make sure that he would remain intellectually active, Gustavo would either fly Danny to Houston or would visit him in Lubbock regularly.
After he earned a Master of Arts in Political Science in 1983, he continued towards his PhD. He kept on working as a waiter until 1992. Then, having completed all his coursework and having just his dissertation to finish, he was able to work as a visiting lecturer in Political Science at the University of Houston and an adjunct professor of International Studies at the University of St. Thomas. In 1994, while still an ABD (All But Dissertation), he was hired full-time at the University of St. Thomas. This required that his professors at the University of Houston certified that he was very close to finishing his dissertation – which he finished three years later, in 1997.
As a teacher he was highly dedicated to his students and inspired them to persevere in their studies. This sentiment, which has been expressed on his Facebook memorial, is indicative of the impact he has had on the lives of this students: “Professor Wensjoe took me under his wing just about the time I was considering dropping out of college. Then, Professor Wensjoe became not only my advisor, but my mentor. He helped me to believe I would finish and I did. He had a tough love and really strived to cultivate the minds of his students.”
After a stint as Director of Study Abroad programs, which he was able to expand in a relatively short span of time, encouraging UST students to study abroad and discover the world, he became the Director of the Center for International Studies in 2004. Under his tenure, International Studies quickly became number one in terms of having the largest number of declared undergraduate majors at UST.
However, he would never pressure a student to major in International Studies; he would always advise his students to follow their hearts and pursue their passions. A student wrote, “I had switched from Fine Arts to International Studies as a major because family members and friends had convinced me that I needed to do something "lucrative" with my life. My interest in other cultures and countries prompted me to switch to IS and the first (and last) class I had was with Dr. Wensjoe. One day, no one was answering questions, and he was getting frustrated with us. Finally, one student shot back and said, ‘If you ask me anything about sports, I'll be able to answer you then!’ and he countered by asking, ‘Then why are you in International Studies? You should be a coach or a phys ed teacher or something similar.’ He spoke for 15 more minutes about how we should be doing something that we love and enjoy, rather than something that could just make us money. That day I happily switched back to Fine Arts.”
Along the same lines, another student of his wrote: "When I first decided to change to a career path that had absolutely nothing to do with international studies, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to our professors. Instead, when Dr. Wensjoe found out, he was even more excited than I was. He eagerly tried to introduce me to anyone he knew in the field of public health and medicine. At the time I was taking his dreaded IPE course and after the first exam I was summoned to his office. I immediately thought that I must have completely bombed the test or maybe it sounded just like someone else’s? It turns out that he was concerned about my B because he didn’t want to affect my GPA and hurt my chances of getting into medical school! I couldn’t believe he was so concerned with me, my future career. Even I hadn’t thought so much of the grade. That is the kind of professor that Dr. Wensjoe is to all of us. His encouragement, enthusiasm, and individual attention paid to each of his students will truly be missed."
He would challenge his students relentlessly, push them, engage them, and encourage them to do their best and pursue their passion: “Even though I wasn't an International Studies major, Wensjoe impacted my life and I took as many of his classes as possible. I remember him and me going round and round because I refused to meet the minimum paper length requirement for our short essay papers. In class, he would yell, ‘This is not three pages. I said it has to be at least three pages.’ To which I would respond, ‘Everything is covered in less than 3, if not, deduct points.’ He would smile and oddly enjoy being stood up to. Strangely enough I never got less than an A on the papers.”
Not all students were able to reply quickly to his challenges: “As a Canadian exchange student, Dr. Wensjoe welcomed me with a stern handshake and the question, ‘What makes you think Canada should have all that land?’ I wasn't sure how to answer - and it took me at least a few more months to realize that this was the style of a professor who would challenge his students at every opportunity - and celebrate their success with the pride of a parent. He was the most important professor I studied with. My kids will know about what a great man he was...he was a mentor, a supporter, and a principled person whose impact will be felt by students and friends all over the world for generations.”
He was certainly a father to all his students: “Dr. Wensjoe was so paternal that I wasn't even scared of not finding a job as an international student; he said he had that under control; I knew he had a plan for me. I don't know how he found time to do all those things he was involved with and at the same time remember all his student's names, even schedules!!! I remember I had an appointment with him on my first day of school. I went to his office and he asked me how was my class, I said it was great and then he literally tested me on what class I had next and the name of my professors; I failed (and of course he knew every single class I was taking, the date and time, professors, and even the room number, no kidding!!).”
After all his time in the United States spent expanding his own horizons and touching the lives of his students, he did not forget about those less fortunate than himself still in his native country of Peru. He knew that with an education he had been able to achieve his dreams and that with an education the children of impoverished Peruvians could achieve their dreams too. To achieve this objective he created PEP, the Peruvian Educational Project, in 2004, with the assistance of UST faculty, students, alumni, and a few other friends. PEP’s mission is to give poor children living in Huaycan, a shantytown East of Lima, access to quality education and facilities as long as they show academic promise.
Unfortunately, Gustavo did not get to live long enough to see the new school building which was inaugurated on January 14, 2010. He will not congratulate the students who have graduated and those who will pursue their university education. He left us on March 19, 2009, before seeing his dream come true. He died in a terrible traffic accident in Peru with his nine-month old son, Julian, while he was on his way to visit the school. He is survived by his wife, Joanne, two of his children from a previous marriage, by the children of Huaycan who came to look to him as a mentor and father figure, and by those of us who have now undertaken the mission of PEP in order to make sure that Gustavo’s dream would endure.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Until his last day, Gustavo followed and lived to the hilt this citation by Gandhi, a quote he once wrote it in a book he gifted to a student.